Dream on – Les Misérables review

Les Misérables – Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway. Directed by Tom Hooper. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

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Tom Hooper‘s cinematic adaptation of Les Misérables touches greatness more often than most of the movies released in the past calendar year, which is why it’s so disappointing whenever the film returns to its more frequent state of being: pretty good. Set in the grimy Parisian gutters of the 19th century, it tells of the years-long cat-and-mouse game between reformed criminal Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and noble policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). I’m unfamiliar with the musical and the Victor Hugo novel that inspired it, but I was spellbound by this picture’s fantastic first act. Surprise set in as it rolled past the 150 minute mark and I realised how many of the tunes were totally unremarkable. It’s a testament to its early brilliance – and the unique pleasure of seeing every line of dialogue sung, even by Rusty – that this massive production held my attention. My bladder, however, demanded two separate visits to the restroom. Thankfully, the soundtrack offers plenty of opportunities for an escape.

Les Mis features a cast of thousands, though it really only stars two people: Jackman, as Valjean, and Anne Hathaway, delivering the signature showstopper I Dreamed a Dream as cursed single-mother-turned-prostitute Fantine (perhaps the poorest of the titular “poor ones”). Jackman has never been better on screen, and his early belters Work Song and What Have I Done are devastatingly effective in showing off his dual talents of singing beautifully and looking manly. Hathaway, meanwhile, personally plucks every last tear from our ocular cavities in what is surely 2012’s most affecting turn. Her absence is deeply felt in the second and third acts. Late-entry castmembers Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried never stood a chance. For the remainder, we’re stuck in our seats like parents who must dutifully sit through all the other children’s routines long after their kid opened – and crushed – school concert night.

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Speaking of school, Hooper deserves a ‘Most Improved’ award and an enthusiastic sticker for his dramaturgical display here. As much of a fan I am of his previous works The Damned United and The King’s Speech, his wonky cinematography was even more motion-sickness inducing than any 3-D epic (the shots were so frequently canted they may as well have been completely upside down). This time, DP Danny Cohen’s camera tells a story, and it’s suited to the grand spectacle of it all. He and Hooper hold on the actors during their big songs, demanding of them an emphatic performance in a single take close up. This also means they are no longer encumbered with having to project or properly enunciate every syllable, as would be expected on stage. Jackman’s What Have I Done is drenched in his weeps; Hathaway’s voice crackles with despair on I Dreamed a Dream, shortly after she shows off the incredible breadth of her vocal register. They’re highlights, unique to this particular iteration.

The plot scarcely needs retelling; even I knew the gist of it before going in. For tradition’s sake, a brief synopsis of the second half: Marius (Redmayne) is a young revolutionary bewitched by Jean’s ward, Cosette (Seyfried). She is, in fact, the daughter of Fantine, rescued by Valjean from the clutches of cruel innkeepers, the Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). Their own poverty-stricken child, Éponine (a worryingly small-waisted Samantha Barks), pines for Marius. And so on and so forth. The soap-operaness of the back end doesn’t quite hold a candle to the enduring battle of ethics that rages within Jean. Needless to say, the love triangle between Marius, Cosette, and Éponine is never interesting enough by comparison, even as their lives end up on the line during the climactic June Rebellion. Still, Hooper remembers to wow us in the end, and Les Misérables finishes with a bang that almost matches the Castle on a Cloud-like heights of its transcendent beginning.

4/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Les Misérables arrives in Australian cinemas December 26, 2012.

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